7 Kazoo! Fest acts sound off on why DIY matters

We asked artists at Guelph’s genreless music festival to break down what “underground” means to them (and why it's so important).

May 1, 2018

Limited as it is by centuries-old buildings and a bar scene dependent on hard partying university students, on a surface level, downtown Guelph, Ontario isn’t a shoe-in for a multi-day concert crawl. But for the last 10 years, DIY music scene promoters Kazoo! have flown their pirate cat-marked flags high in spite of conventional wisdom, routinely making use of unorthodox spaces for late night concerts, café matinees, and pancake breakfasts, all padded out with the odd artist talks, panel discussions, workshops, and recent annual traditions like the Kazoo! Print Expo and a larger spring edition of Guelph’s independent night market along the way.

As Kazoo! ushered in its 11th year of festival programming for another five days of concert hopping, I boarded a train to take in as much as I could and get a sense of what the grassroots festival means to emerging voices, obscure experimentalists, hip-hop iconoclasts, and composers experiencing career renaissances alike.

Ben Grossman  

On opening night, eager festival attendees wandering into Kazoo!’s pop-up venue – a white-walled, 6,000-square-foot warehouse space (Kazoo! HQ in fest vernacular) – are greeted with an avant-garde explosion. Local experimentalist Ben Grossman’s sound installation—a combination of fixed metallic strings, contact mics and staggered wooden wheels—stretches across the length of the performance space, and as the wheels rub against their corresponding strings like neverending bows, the sheet metal techtonics pierce and thunder with the cavernous room’s ghostly reverb. For the ribbon cutting ceremony, Grossman’s arranged a live performance accompanied by Nathan Lawr (Minotaurs) on drums, and naturally, he’s brought along his hurdy-gurdy and some electronics, too.

When I catch up with Grossman later at a morning synth hang (a hands-on sort of show-and-tell for gearheads and future wire pullers alike) he says the sound sculpture was something he’s been sitting on for years, but even after receiving some support from the Ontario Arts Council, he didn’t feel confident pursuing it until he brought the idea up to Scott McGovern, the production director at Kazoo! programming partner and Guelph media arts centre Ed Video. “Because I don’t exist in that sort of art world and I exist in the music world, I don’t know where [else] I would go to say I wanna do this thing – ‘can I do it here in your gallery or at your festival or at your event?’”

He says he can’t overstate the importance of festivals like Kazoo!, also Pointing to Toronto’s Music Gallery, the Sound Symposium in St. John’s, Open Space in Victoria, and Meaford, Ontario’s Electric Eclectics as crucial to his practice because they create spaces for artists existing on the margins of established scenes an avenue through which they can make new work. “For those of us who do work a little bit outside the commercial sphere—or a lot outside the commercial sphere—these kinds of festivals are really the only viable way to get the kind of support, and I don’t mean financial support. I mean like emotional and artistic support for what we do. And as a source of community building, [they’re providing] the sense that maybe you’re not the only one out in the wilderness in the middle of nowhere making these things that don’t fit into pop radio or pop culture.”

The Powers

Tom Beedham

Night two brings more weirdness to Kazoo! HQ when The Powers follow posi dance troop Church and former Women frontman Patrick Flegel’s art-ravaged drag show Cindy Lee with a trippy Gesamtkunstwerk production incorporating everything from life-sized puppetry, film, and performance art to blacklight theatre, electronic music, dance, and lowkey pyrotechnics. Seriously: the scene’s fit for a bath salts hallucination as Katherine Kline, Jessica Mensch, and Emily Pelstring do their thing.

The trio enters the performance space one big amorphous alien, only to shed their skin and reveal themselves wearing upside down masks. Sitting down with Kline, Mensch, and Pelstring after the set, the threesome surrounds me in a triangle formation, placing their palms on my head like it’s some crystal ball (they’re just like this) as I ask what brought them out to Guelph, and Pelstring spikes the question with a loaded one-word answer: “Resources.” 

“It would’ve not been doable without the funding and without a festival like this,” Kline reflects. “They generously flew me in from BC… they totally made our band camp happen this spring.” Currently based in New York, Kingston, ON, and a remote island in British Columbia, the group only gets together for performances and the rare retreats they use to record and develop new material, so when Kazoo! reached out with a booking inquiry, they seized the opportunity to connect, assembling in Kline’s backyard on Pender Island. When that happens, Mensch says, “It’s not just an opportunity to play, it’s an opportunity to make new work.” “Some of the stage antics that you saw tonight are totally new,” she says. “The impact kind of goes beyond the 25-minute set.”

Germaine Liu and Nicole Rampersaud

Tom Beedham

On Friday night, in-demand Toronto improvisers and composers Germaine Liu and Nicole Rampersaud usher in the weekend at Heritage Hall. While Liu’s performance with a single snare drum at the festival’s pancake breakfast in 2016 still stands out as a festival highlight, it’s Rampersaud’s first time at Kazoo!, even though she’s followed the festival for years. With some idea what to expect, she’s written some new compositions for structured improvisation designed with both the festival and the night’s venue in mind. “I knew that we were gonna be in this space and I knew that it used to be a church, and I wanted the idea of a church and the history that this particular church brings to be a part of the space that we were in musically,” she tells me.

The pair performed in a former British Methodist Episcopal church built by liberated, formerly enslaved black people who arrived in the area via the Underground Railroad. Now operated by the Guelph Black Heritage Society as a cultural, historical, and social centre, the hall is a natural setting for liberated sounds, and Rampersaud and Liu embody the spirit of the space by taking the audience to church, bringing along a kitchen sink assortment of implements that has Liu playing a full kit with house keys, water bottles, and more conventional implements like violin bows, while Rampersaud’s brought along a variety of mutes and a honeytone amp for some feedback squelches.

“I feel like it’s a space for me. A space for me to create music and not feel like I have to fit into a certain mould,” Liu say. Within that, she says, informal institutions like Kazoo! create a space where relationships—both interpersonal and between musician and instrument—can form, develop, and cross-pollinate in important ways. “It’s formal but it’s informal at the same time, so you feel like you can connect with people and they can connect with you, hopefully. I think mainly for me it’s these spaces are so important for this music to happen and for these relationships to happen.”

Dorothea Paas

On Saturday morning, Southern Ontario wakes up to a late bonus round of winter, snow and sleet raining down on Guelph, everything blanketed with snow and shining with a glossy ice patina. Students embedded in exams breathe a sigh of relief as the University of Guelph shuts down operations for the day, but Kazoo! is in full effect. “I was worried about getting up here because of the weather and everything was feeling a bit ‘will it happen? Is it gonna work out?’” Dorothea Paas confesses in the cozy backroom of Red Brick Cafe, but she says all that anxiety dissipated when she showed up to the space. “Just being here was totally affirming.”

It isn’t particularly easy pulling off events like Kazoo! in towns like Guelph, and Paas and her band’s show in the back of a quiet coffee shop during regular Saturday business hours is proof. But for Paas, the ingenuity that results in simultaneously speaks to the local appetite for live music, which translates to a more generous audience. “It’s a place that I’ve actually never played before, I haven’t played in Guelph, and to feel a bit of what the community is here and feel very welcomed and have people see me who have never seen me before – I think that’s a huge part of what is so uplifting about playing these smaller festivals,” she says. “There’s communities that already exist where people are super invested in music and will be a very earnest and open audience, and that’s what I feel like we found here, which is kind of irreplaceable.”

Beverly Glenn-Copeland

Tom Beedham

A close but precarious walk away via still unshoveled residential streets, later in the evening, festival-goers pack into the pews at Dublin Street United Church for a rare and deeply moving performance from Beverly Glenn-Copeland, some audience members taking it in from the chapel’s upper bowl. At 74 years old, the singer/composer/multi-instrumentalist is experiencing a career renaissance following 2016’s Invisible City Editions reissue of his 1986 album Keyboard Fantasies. Recorded with just a Yamaha DX7, a Roland TR-707 and his incredible three-octave vocal range, it’s a record full of joy and wonderment, and as he breathes new life into its entries accompanied by a new band, onstage, Glenn-Copeland is a living meme of human gratitude, often breaking to praise those around him and tell stories between songs.

So it’s no surprise when Glenn-Copeland tells me about the show at his appreciation for festivals like Sappy and Kazoo! For him, they facilitate a culture where more senior artists like himself can connect with younger audiences like the people in his band. “This is their milieu,” he explains. “I see this movement as being the movement of young people to make things be about community. And so, I’m thrilled.” Full of utopian warmth, he believes that  smaller independent festivals also have something new and vital to offer older, more bloated festival models hung up on buzz and record sales. “The old concepts are dying because they cease to value what was evolving and kind of got stuck in what was,” he says. “This is the future.”

Matthew Progress

Over on Quebec Street, eBar takes festival-goers late into the night with a club showcase of crossover house acts like Korea Town Acid, Moon King, DOOMSQUAD, and Toronto emcee Matthew Progress. The latter’s house-oriented hip-hop flows fly in the face of Toronto’s trap-oriented commercially sanctioned sound and he’s written op-eds about disrupting that “normalized corporate template of ‘urban’ artist,” so it’s no surprise when, hot off his headlining set, he offers some observant speculations about the communities DIY serves next to the bar.

“The bigger performance entities do a lot of cherry-picking and they look for artists who have a big amount of push and money and development behind them,” he says. “I think that DIY festivals are some of the only big platforms for more emerging artists that really have their shit together but don’t necessarily have that big label backing. And so it’s very, very crucial to the music industry and just to art and music in general.” Of course, he’s all about capital “P” Progress, so he also emphasizes the importance of reciprocity within the scene. “Part two is where the artists come in. Artists who have played Kazoo! Fest and do make it to that next level, they come back and play and raise the name of Kazoo! Fest. It gets bigger together.”

Joyful, Joyful

Tom Beedham

From year one, Kazoo! Fest has ambitiously tied things off with a Sunday morning pancake breakfast, a communal gathering where everyone feels their cumulative late nights the most but comes together to get in line for buffet style breakfast and chill comedown vibes anyway. This year, Joyful Joyful has been tasked with realigning all our internal rhythms with the world outside the festival bubble, and the Toronto-via-Peterborough duo is uniquely equipped for the task. Purveyors of lost but not forgotten music, while Dave Grendon summons electronic dronescapes out of hardware electronics, Cormac Culkeen channels sacred and folk vocal traditions, an unparallelled voice that booms and beams about human relationships, hope, loss, joy, and seeking understanding, waxing spiritual all over.

When I speak with Culkeen afterwards, the lyrical themes of their set carry onward as they matter of factly articulate the importance of DIY intervention in terms of personal responsibility. “It’s really kind of the only way to get things done, isn’t it? You have to do it and you have to make the things you want to see in the world. And when people do that, that’s wonderful.” For Culkeen, if it wasn’t for the selflessness of others, Joyful Joyful may have never happened. “I think there would be no bands without DIY scenes. There certainly would be no ‘us’ bands,” they say. “If there wasn’t an encouraging group of radio producers and noise musicians and folk musicians to encourage me when I was learning how to play music, then I would not be a musician today. So it’s essential.” Speaking to the endurance of the basic kindness of the human spirit, it’s a deeply moving note to end the festival on, and we all leave feeling a little lighter.”

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